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Exploring the History of the Kenyan Embassy in Washington D.C.

From the former residence of California's Senator James Phelan to the Embassy of Sweden and then the Embassy of Kenya, explore the history of the Kenyan Embassy in Washington D.C. Learn about the royal visit, the accidental vandalism and the 40th anniversary celebration of the embassy.
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Our last embassy version of “If Walls Could Talk” was quite popular, so here’s another one from the same part of town, Sheridan Circle.

California’s new senator buys Washington residence

In December 1915, California’s freshman senator, James Phelan — former mayor of San Francisco — was about six months into his first, and only, term in Congress when he purchased the stately home at 2249 R St. NW.

Phelan was a wealthy businessman in California, having acquired much of his wealth as a result of the California Gold Rush, before taking on politics. The senator and his wife had been living with their family at the Shoreham Hotel and, with the purchase of this grand home, were expected to take a central role in Washington society.

Senator John [sic] Phelan, of California, who succeeds Senator George Clement Perkins, has purchased the spacious modern white stone building at 2249 T street northwest for a price said to exceed $125,000. The home was owned by Peyton Russell, from whom it was purchased. The sale is understood to be practically a cash transaction.

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The new senator from California is a man of large means, and in all probably will entertain extensively, making the new home one of the centers of social activity during his official life in the National Capital.

The house faces fashionable Sheridan circle. It is of the English basement type, four stories, containing 30 rooms, 7 baths, hardwood floors, and stained glass windows. The grounds surrounding the home are extensive and give the building an attractive setting.

Apparently, when the Washington Post published this on December 2nd, 1915, they didn’t proof it, because John Phelan is the name of James’ father. The new senator’s time in the city was short-lived, as he was voted out of office after only one term.

Embassy of Sweden

Swedish legation in 1921 (Washington Post)
Swedish legation in 1921 (Washington Post)

Beginning in the early 1920s, the home was the location of the Swedish Embassy. In 1921, the legation was headed by Axel F. Wallenberg of the prominent Swedish banking family.

In May 1926, the mansion and the city of Washington played host to the Swedish royal family, when they visited to help unveil the memorial to John Ericsson (inventor of the Civil War gunboat Monitor). The royals were to be in the city for three days, staying at the embassy during their visit. Below is a short Washington Post article from March 21st, 1926,  mentioning the visit.

Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf and Crown Princess Louise of Sweden will be the guests of Wollmar F. Bostrom, Swedish Minister to the United States, and Mme. Bostrom when they come to Washington in May, it was announced last night. The royal visitors will stay at the Swedish legation, 2249 R street northwest, during their brief sojourn in this city.

A dinner in honor of the crown prince and princess will be given by Col. Robert M. Thompson, at his residence, 1700 Eighteenth street northwest, it was stated. Other festivities in honor of the distinguished guests are being planned, together with official receptions for the three days during which they will remain in the Capital, but the schedule has not yet been definitely agreed upon. Col. Thompson is at present in Florida. He is expected to return from Key West the latter part of the month.

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Any visit by a royal in D.C. is a big deal. This was certainly no exception.

Crown Prince Gustavus Adolphus and Crown Princess Louise Alexandra of Sweden (1926)
Crown Prince Gustavus Adolphus and Crown Princess Louise Alexandra of Sweden (1926)

The visit to our city was quite successful, as reported by the Post on May 28th, 1926. Not only that, but it seemed that the Prince was a big fan of Washington (or being very polite).

Captivated by the charm of Washington, Crown Prince Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, declared last evening that the city was the “most beautiful” he had ever seen.

The Swedish heir paid his compliment to the Capital at a conference with the press shortly after his arrival. Crown Princess Louise nodded her head to show that she agreed with her husband.

Just before the press conference, the royal pair made a formal call at the White House, and, as they afterward put it, were accorded a “perfectly charming” reception by President and Mrs. Coolidge.

The crown prince and his entourage were given a vociferous welcome at Union station. The Army band of 90 pieces played the Swedish national anthem and a squadron of cavalrymen sat rigidly at attention with drawn sabers. Meanwhile two-score cameramen turned their lenses on the royal pair and a crowd of 3,000 persons began to cheer.

The ride of the royal pair from the depot to the legation at 2249 R street was a triumphal one. The streets were lined by men and women, the former doffing their hats, and the latter waving handkerchiefs. Near the legation, an urchin propelling a “pushmobile,” sped alongside the royal visitor’s limousine and yelled a lusty greeting.

“I have never seen a town quite so beautiful,” he replied warmly. “There are so many trees and so many open spaces. Every street seems to be shaded with trees. There is not a city in the world like it.”

It’s always nice to have the royal stamp of approval, isn’t it? Flattery will get you everywhere Sweden. We love your Volvos, Saabs, Ikea, ABBA, Ace of Base, Greta Garbo, Alfred Nobel, your settlement of Minnesota and, of course, the democratization of your Twitter account (@Sweden).

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Come back and visit us anytime King Carl and Queen Silvia.

Vandals accidentally target Swedish Embassy

Sometimes a building can be at the wrong place at the wrong time. That happened on November 17th, 1969, when vandals targeted the Embassy of South Vietnam, next door. Below is the Post’s report of what happened.

Bricks were thrown through windows in the South Vietnamese Embassy and the next door Swedish chancery last night, Washington police reported.

No one was injured in the incidents, which occurred about 6:55 p.m.

Police said the brick in the Swedish chancery landed in a restroom and the one in the South Vietnamese Embassy in a first-floor reception area.

Police speculated that both bricks were intended for the South Vietnamese Embassy, at 2251 R St. NW. The Swedish chancery, next door at 2249 R St. appears to be part of the same structure.

Embassy of Kenya moves in

The nation of Kenya had received its independence from the United Kingdom in 1963 and formally was declared the Republic of Kenya in 1964. By 1971, the Swedish Embassy had moved out into their new space at the top of the Watergate and Kenya had taken over the building for their embassy.

"Harambee" A Kenyan Tradition (source: Flickr user dbking)
“Harambee” A Kenyan Tradition (source: Flickr user dbking)
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Ghosts of DC stories.